COMMENTARY

Shifting Between Ideas: My Tryst With Religion

Photo of Disha Raychaudhuri by Magali Gauthier

By Disha Raychaudhuri

In the 23 years that I’ve lived, there has been just one day when I’ve actually prayed. It was the day my mother died. I remember sitting next to her hospital bed, looking at her comatose, lifeless body and praying so hard for a miracle. Clearly they didn’t work, and I was done with my faith. I was thirteen at the time.

Being born into a particular faith is very different from actually following it. Like majority Indians, I was born into a Hindu family. Nobody was particularly religious, but like most others my age, I was conditioned into believing in the idea of God and in Hinduism as a faith. I celebrated in numerous festivals without really knowing what they meant or which god represented which belief. Although, in my defense, it gets really difficult to keep track of the millions of gods listed in the Hindu scriptures, even more so for a kid. Retrospectively, prayers never really meant anything. I would fold my hands before an idol and make a wish because I was taught to do so, because it was habit.

Schooling for kids in India begins earlier than the usual age for Americans. I joined a Protestant school when I was three and gradually began spending more time in activities common to the Christian faith. I did celebrate Hindu festivals with family, but the significance greatly reduced as I got older. I enjoyed chapel services more than visits to temples, mostly because I found chapel services to be a lot livelier with all the music and singing. I looked forward to Christmas because it meant singing Christmas carols every morning. If ever I felt connected to a religious faith for no logical reason, it was during this time. I never identified as a Christian because in my world it required me to formally convert to the faith, and rituals had never made much sense to me.

It took me the loss of a parent to turn atheist. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just like following the faith wasn’t one. It happened in a split second, and the events that followed her death only reinforced the idea. In Hinduism, the daughter or son of the deceased is expected to perform complex rituals that often go on for more than six hours at a stretch. I did them because I was told that it would put me at peace and help me better deal with loss. Nothing happened. I only noticed the humongous wastage of food during the rituals and the lack of privacy that families were expected to deal with.

Because my own lack of faith in anything religious is so closely tied to a personal loss, I find it very unsettling to see religion being made a primary marker of a person’s identity. When we describe someone in terms of their religion, we run the risk of making them stand for everything that that religion represents. If they are believers, religion might be a central part of their identity, but rarely ever is it everything.

Media coverage of religion has only reinforced that belief. It hasn’t changed my personal ideas, but it has certainly made me want to be a more responsible journalist.

Religion was never an identity for me. It is still an idea, as it was when I first vaguely figured out what it might mean. It just so happens that even the idea doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.